Joseph Mount and co head to Toe Rag for analogue experiment and mild anxiety…
On their last album, The English Riviera, which sold quarter of a million copies and was nominated for the Mercury prize, Metronomy seemed to have finally tied down their eccentric English songwriting. Their first record fussed its way around scuzzy rock, videogame brightness and electroclash sleaze, while 2008’s Nights Out still had an air of mania even as the hooks got stronger. The English Riviera, and wonderful transitional single “Not Made For Love”, took a much-needed deep breath – their songs were still brittle and nervy, but often slower, and a little more at ease.
That restless energy still hums away, however, only now they’re diverting it into a change of production rather than songwriting. Like The English Riviera, these are cool, sad lounge-pop songs that fret about love, but rather than being slick digital arrangements, they were recorded at Toe Rag Studios, the all-analogue base for The White Stripes, Tame Impala and others. Frontman Joseph Mount has been writing with a guitar, and has cited The Isley Brothers and The Zombies’ Odessey And Oracle as influences. If you were cynical you might see this as retrograde, but the fact is that Toe Rag fits Metronomy perfectly.
You can hear the room echo in Mount’s vocals, a sound of immediate vulnerability, and the smudgy synths soften their tendency towards the inscrutable and wacky. The backbeats are the pre-808 drum machines that you might find perched atop a shopping mall church organ, so cute in their dogged bossa nova pulsing – “The Most Immaculate Haircut” doesn’t even chop off the sound of the machine warming up, slowly speeding up like a record with a needle left on it, while it stutters to a pathetic stop at the end of “The Upsetter”. It’s the beta-male version of the swaggering drumkit, but is humbly resilient, matching the protagonists of the songs who are easily hurt, flawed and yet not entirely spineless.
“The Upsetter” opens the album, a lovely ballad where Mount wheedles “you’re really giving me a hard time tonight” over acoustic strumming and softly modulating seasick synths, that swell into an exceptional guitar solo reminiscent of Neil Young. The mood darkens on the next track “I’m Aquarius”, even the boom-tsk of the drum machine sounding more harried; the backing vocals are all sung rather than sequenced, and you can hear the singer grimly smiling after the nth shoop-doop-doop-ah. It’s perhaps their greatest song yet, a deftly told tale of the various poisons that seep into modern relationships: passive aggression, spite, narcissism and an emotional articulacy that paradoxically means a total lack of communication. “Never saw just how much you thought I meant to me,” Mount raps, taking the language of love song and twisting it into baffling anti-logic. He eventually lapses into a desperate repetition of the title, blaming the stars instead of himself.
The rest can’t quite match this opening brace (indeed, Italo instrumental “Boy Racers” is plain annoying), but there are gems throughout. The title track is a big Roxy/Abba white disco number, while “Reservoir” uses a slightly silly backing – the kind of thing you might hear in a ’70s infomercial for carpet cleaner – on a Jarvis Cocker-style slice of freewheeling smalltown storytelling. There’s more wry emotional weakness on “Call Me”, as Mount promises “we can try anything” before immediately adding a caveat: “we can say we’ll try anything”. And throughout there’s a marked psych influence, half Byrds and half West Coast, and nowhere more than “Month Of Sundays” with its chorus line ringing with a Grace Slick hauteur.
Mount has said that the Toe Rag trip was a one-off, so perhaps Metronomy will never cure their itchy feet. But they’re thriving in their constant meandering – be it around a mixing desk or affairs of the heart.
Why did you head to Toe Rag?
The last record was the first time I’d been in a proper recording studio, but in the end I was still quite heavily relying on a computer to edit and arrange. My only all-encompassing thought was to do a record that forced me to write songs in a more traditional way, and get a different sense of achievement. People of my age always feel like computers help you cheat a little bit in certain things you do; the feeling you get [at Toe Rag] is more that you’ve made something out of nothing. Making music in that environment is much more laborious, in a workmanlike way… It’s a different level of care: pre-production versus post-production, and it means that everything you’re doing with intent rather than as a reaction to something.
The lyrics are quite frank…
You’re laying yourself bare – I’ve always been quite aware of that and worried that people will take things the wrong way, or laugh. But I realised you can kind of say what you want and people will listen and not judge. I was travelling when I was writing, and the only stuff I felt I had the authority to write about was being away from people, mildly upsetting people by being unreliable. But there are other tracks where I took a little bit of inspiration from what I experienced and ran with it. So if maybe in some songs I sound like a flawed person, I can assure you I’m not, I’m just singing a little story [laughs].
INTERVIEW: BEN BEAUMONT-THOMAS
Photo credit: Tim Eve